Empath or Psychopath

reddragonThomas Harris’ novel, The Red Dragon, is the precursor to Silence of the Lambs. The main character of The Red Dragon is a retired FBI detection named Will Graham. James Fallon, author of The Psychopath Inside, has written that Graham is really a pro-social psychopath. I found Fallon’s view of Graham jarring as it sharply conflicted with my own view.

When I read about him, I saw Graham as an empath whose genius in solving crimes was his ability to put himself in the mind of the suspect. Although useful, Graham found this ability upsetting since he didn’t like the way these killers thought. Of course, that very ability to intuit what the killer was thinking makes James Fallon think he is a psychopath, albeit pro-social.

idyllicThe book starts out in the beach house where Graham and his wife are leading an idyllic life. Jack Crawford, the senior officer on an current case, is there to persuade Graham to come out of retirement to help him. He says he needs his help as Graham is the best. Graham’s empathy is immediately in evidence. As they sit at a picnic table,

“Jack Crawford heard the rhythm and syntax of his own speech in Graham’s voice. He had heard Graham do that before, with other people. Often in intense conversation Graham took on the other person’s speech patterns. At first, Crawford had thought he was doing it deliberately, that it was a gimmick to get the back-and-forth rhythm going
“Later Crawford realized that Graham did it involuntarily, that sometimes he tried to stop and couldn’t.”

grahamIt’s true, of course, that a psychopath can mirror other people in order to manipulate them. But to do it involuntarily with no ulterior motive seems more empathic than psychopathic.

Graham doesn’t want to get involved in the investigation. Molly, his wife, doesn’t want him to do it either.  But his conscience and empathy force him against his will. “What the hell can I do?” he said. “What you’ve already decided. If you stay here and there’s more killing, maybe it would sour this place for you.” Sure Graham can empathize with the killers. But he also empathized with the victims. His empathy was always with him. In a restaurant, he empathized with strangers.

“He saw Crawford’s cigarette smoke bothering a couple in the next booth. The couple ate in a peptic silence, their resentment hanging in the smoke.
“Two women, apparently mother and daughter, argued at a table near the door. They spoke in low voices, anger ugly in their faces. Graham could feel their anger on his face and neck.”

mentalhospGraham had previously been psychiatrically hospitalized for depression after he killed a perp who had been about to murder someone. Although he shot the to save a woman’s life, he still felt “there must be some way I could have handled it better.” He got so depressed over it, he stopped eating and had to be hospitalized. After he had told his step-son about it, the kid asked him, “Killing somebody, even if you have to do it, it feels that willybad?” “Willy,” answered Graham, “it’s one of the ugliest things in the world.” Doesn’t sound like a psychopath to me.

The FBI psychiatrist, Dr. Bloom, said of him, “What he has … is pure empathy and projection. He can assume your point of view, or mine — and maybe some other points of view that scare and sicken  him. It’s an uncomfortable gift… what do  you think one of Will’s strongest drives is? It’s fear, Jack. The man deals with a huge amount of fear.”

on the other hand…

James Fallon had a very different take on Will Graham…

“My favorite example comes from the 1986 film Manhunter, starring Brian Cox and William Petersen. Cox plays Hannibal Lecter, a cannibalistic serial killer who was later reprised more famously by Anthony Hopkins in the films The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Lecter is characterized by his lack of empathy, his glib and charming manipulation of people, and his utter lack of remorse for his horrid and perverse behaviors. In short, he is what many would consider a classic psychopath and would probably have scored high on Hare’s Checklist. Real-life psychopaths who resemble Lecter account for the more sensational and extreme cases — think Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, or the Son of Sam.
“But according to Hare, there is an entire other category of psychopaths out there —  those who don’t score as high on the PCL-R but who still exhibit strong signs of classic psychopathic traits. These are people like the hero of Manhunter, the FBI profiler Will Graham, played by Petersen. Graham recognizes that he has the same urges and lack of interpersonal empathy as Lecter. Although he is not a murderer, he is, in fact, a psychopath, or at least a near-psychopath, what I like to call Psychopath Lite. He might score a 15 or 23 on the PCL-R, just under the 30-point score cutoff for full psychopath, but other than that, you might think him completely normal. When my wife, Diane, and I saw the film in 1986, she pointed to Will and said, “That is you.” (At the time, it threw me off a bit, but I decided she was referring to how nice and deep a guy Will was.)

Graham a psychopath? How can that be? He had a conscience, one that made him clinically depressed after a justified and necessary homicide; a conscience that wouldn’t allow him to bow out of helping to solve another case of serial murder. Knowing he hadn’t done what he could to stop the murders, he wouldn’t have even been able to enjoy his idyllic life any more. I have gone through the book, looking for evidence to support Fallon’s point of view.

smellyourselfHannibal Lecter, whom Graham caught, certainly either thought Graham was a psychopath or enjoyed taunting him with that possibility. When Graham visits Lecter in prison, enlisting his help, Lecter says, “”You just came here to look at me. Just to get the old scent again, didn’t you? Why don’t you just smell yourself?”

“Do you know how you caught me, Will?
“Good-bye, Dr. Lecter. You can leave messages for me at the number on the file.” Graham walked away.
“Do you know how you caught me?”
Graham was out of Lecter’s sight now, and he walked faster toward the far steel door.
“The reason you caught me is that we’re just alike” was the last thing Graham heard as the steel door closed behind him.

Graham’s nemesis, the tabloid newsman, Freddy Lounds, wrote,

He was brought back from early retirement to spearhead the hunt for the “Tooth Fairy.”
What went on in this bizarre meeting of two mortal enemies? What was Graham after?
“It takes one to catch one,” a high federal official told this reporter. He was referring to Lecter, known as “Hannibal the Cannibal,” who is both a psychiatrist and a mass murderer.

tattlerIn the course of the story, Lounds becomes a victim of the “tooth fairy” as a plan to use Graham as bait backfires on Lounds. Since Graham and Lounds had bad blood, one could speculate Graham deliberately set Lounds up. The facts are pretty scanty. The news story that they planted to draw the murderer was published in Lounds’ paper, The Tattler. It was accompanied by a photograph of Lounds and Graham. “Dr. Bloom was surprised to see Graham put a comradely hand on Lounds’s shoulder just before Crawford clicked the shutter.” Lecter accused Graham of deliberately setting the murderer on Lounds. Lecter wrote a letter to Graham…

Dear Will,
A brief note of congratulations for the job you did on Mr. Lounds. I admired it enormously. What a cunning boy you are!
Mr. Lounds often offended me with his ignorant drivel, but he did enlighten me on one thing — your confinement in the mental hospital. My inept attorney should have brought that out in court, but never mind.
You know, Will, you worry too much. You’d be so much more comfortable if you relaxed with yourself.
We don’t invent our natures, Will; they’re issued to us along with our lungs and pancreas and everything else. Why fight it?
I want to help you, Will, and I’d like to start by asking you this: When you were so depressed after you shot Mr. Garrett Jacob Hobbs to death, it wasn’t the act that got you down, was it? Really, didn’t you feel so bad because killing him felt so good?


Graham knew that Lecter was dead wrong about Hobbs, but for a half-second he wondered if Lecter might be a little bit right in the case of Freddy Lounds. The enemy inside Graham agreed with any accusation.
He had put his hand on Freddy’s shoulder in the Tattler photograph to establish that he really had told Freddy those insulting things about the Dragon. Or had he wanted to put Freddy at risk, just a little?

guiltywillIt’s against the nature of a psychopath to “agree with any accusation.” That’s a point for “empath,” I think. So, where do we stand? Fallon and Lecter are squarely on the side of Graham being a psychopath. Thomas Harris is on the side of empath, I think. Will Graham came to a very sad end. His marriage fell apart and the murderer he might have sicked on Lounds ended up getting to him. He lived to wind up in a hospital, knowing his marriage was over. A lot of sacrifice for other people. As a “pro social” psychopath, I would not choose this outcome to save the lives of strangers.

I’ll end this with a final word from Hannibal Lecter for not other reason than shits and giggles:

Dear Will,
Here we are, you and I, languishing in our hospitals. You have your pain and I am without my books — the learned Dr. Chilton has seen to that.
We live in a primitive time — don’t we, Will? — neither savage nor wise. Half measures are the curse of it. Any rational society would either kill me or give me my books.
I wish you a speedy convalescence and hope you won’t be very ugly.

Will Graham was physically ravaged by Hannibal Lecter and Francis Dolarhyde (the Red Dragon) successively. Each time, he ended up in a hospital with substantial wounds. He was on a mental ward because he got depressed over killing a murderer. No thoughts could be so ugly? And now he might be ugly. Empathy. I stick to my guns. He was an empath.

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